The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

If El-P is the Picasso of avant-hip hop, Mr Lif is surely the Matisse; the edges of his figure are not quite tangible, but once penetrated he turns out to be extremely straightforward in his evasions. His new album, I Phantom, is visually bookended by a smoothed-out Michelangelo Everyman which, on unfolding the cover, turns out to be the centre of a Monopoly-type board. On the rear inner sleeve there are two large question marks. Dare you place me, he seems to intend.

And on the other hand Mr Lif is the sort of artist who defies subjective analysis. On the inner sleeve he provides a detailed breakdown of the thoughts and themes behind each of the 14 tracks. I quote:

“This album is an exploration of the dynamics of everyday life, and the pursuit of our dreams, in a rapidly decaying society. I Phantom is a story from beginning to end, told mainly from third and first person perspectives…The story is challenging to follow, because the perspectives change often, and the songs fit together in intricate ways. It takes close listening and some sharp detective work to catch all the links, but the following I Phantom Key should help you comb through the tale.” Which more or less should make this review redundant – the detailed analyses of the tracks, which it would be pointless for me to reiterate, seem to close off any possibility of a subjective reaction. It is rather reminiscent of the smug notes to Westbrook’s On Duke’s Birthday, in which the latter similarly explains to us how each of the sections link with photogenic accuracy into every other one. We are asked to admire an aesthetic toast rack for its straightness and perfection.

“A young man, down on his luck, has a nightmare about making a fatal mistake.” But does he? Well he is in a McJob, from which he resigns, finds that without job or money he is a cabbage in this society, so decides to get another job as well as money, marries and has children, but neglects his family in favour of his still foolish ambitions. Somewhere along the way there’s a Magnolia-style multiple situation scenario, but instead of raining frogs a nuclear blast destroys everyone. An extreme simplification, but That Is Basically It. The first part of course is a rerun of Original Pirate Material, but painted on an intentionally larger canvas; whereas Mike Skinner is still wandering around Brixton and cadging money for next week’s garage night at his record’s end.

Nothing left for the subjective critic then but to talk about the record musically. One always finds a way into art, especially when El-P is (largely) on hand to produce. Surreal and astringent his music remains, but the Rothko dark purples of Fantastic Damage are invaded by a rogue streak of yellow. Here he brings light in.

“Bad Card” opens the record like an Oval outtake, or Radiohead’s “Fitter Healthier” reconstituted by Jan Jelinek; backward flutes and beats flying across all viewpoints. No familiar Peter Skellern reference to hang your hat on here. A conversation ensues; “don’t fuck around and get killed” the gun lender tells the progenitor.

“A Glimpse at the Struggle” is determinedly midtempo, but constantly derailed by drowning Horace Silver block piano chords, sudden clustered pile-ups passing by each side of him like the deceptively ominous high-rises bestriding the M4 like outsized sarcophagi as you exit London. “Those were the days when it was really real,” Lif deludes himself. Heavy breathing combines with industrial rhythms and distant sirens. It is Gang Starr’s bucolic humour refracted into a desperately floating parabola of uncertain stability. Somewhere amidst this dream, Lif dies. The passage between worlds is unclearly marked.

Thaw re-emerges as Lanark, slightly surer of himself but certainly no wiser. “Return of the B-Boy” is built on a trellis of treble. He wants to go back to ’86 but remembers the landmines which El-P left there. A harpsichord loop has an epileptic fit behind him. The sunlit underpasses opened up by Eric B and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” are excavated. “I’m gonna bring it back.” Gonna exhume it, more like. There is still nothing living here, not even when the song abruptly changes track, dismisses any notion of “back in the day” and retreats to a nocturnal deadened acid jazz throb; not even when Lif “awakens” and goes to his McJob. “Live From The Plantation” undertakes a forensic analysis of work-as-slavery-as-substitute-for-death which may well have been untouched since the days of the Gang of Four, though musically this is far more linear than GoF (even though a momentary paradisical harp and human beatbox attempt to derail the track). The sort of song/recitation which the Hughes brothers ought to use for their next film (Whitechapel just isn’t you; determinedly devoid of call centres). “The function of life is just to work and consume.” He “punches the clock right off the wall” and quits.

“New Man Theme” is dC Basehead’s “Brand New Day” in negative, without even a strand of irony within it. The beat immediately amplifies to signify revived arteries. He remembers dropping out of college for the same reason that he has just punched the McClock off the wall (despite the obvious fact that the McJob was a consequence of his dropping out). In his “torture quarters” (i.e. bedroom) he locked himself in. Someone who needs the world to fit in with him, rather than vice versa. Someone who ultimately is keeping the Stranger out with his pseudo-maternal shield.

Immediately he runs into problems. On the skit “Handouts” he tries to blag a free beat off Insight, but the latter quite reasonably argues that he “needs to eat, man.” Straight into “Status,” with a bassline which vacillates between Peter Hook and Stevie Wonder, and where Lif goes to a club, superficially to socialise, essentially to scrounge, really to find a future. The club is 12 blocks away; he walks 10 and takes a cab for the last two. But it starts raining while he is walking; his appearance is ruined and he becomes nobody. Mike Skinner makes glorious black comedy out of this type of situation (“All Got Our Runnins”). Here Lif is just a laughing stock. He is already dead. “One day you’ll make it and won’t have to deal with this madness” his conscience Insight assures him, but how sure can he be? He has to do something. They run out of money and out of studio time.

Exit Insight. Enter El-P, devastatingly. The track “Success” (featuring Aesop Rock, the Mondrian of avant-hip hop) sounds as though the whole album has suddenly exploded into colour. A weeping, distended string line (Dr Octagon’s “Blue Flowers” after Kevin Shields has had a go at it) screams at Lif throughout. Similarly the speed of his life abruptly goes into warp drive. In the course of this one track he gets a job, makes money, gets married, starts a family, ignores them for his ambitions, loses them, but remarries and gets another chance. One is reminded of G K Chesterton playing with the elasticity of timespans in The Man Who Was Thursday, wherein crossing the English Channel by boat seems to be accomplished in about five minutes, and Dover become Leicester Square in another five minutes. Time goes more quickly when you think you are accomplishing.

And of course he isn’t really accomplishing. “Daddy Dearest” is a merciless condensation of Harry Chapin’s “Cats In The Cradle” scenario, where the father clearly has no time for the son from his first marriage. Here there is only a cursory telephone conversation, and untold eternities of heartbreak behind it.

Because Lif wants “The Now.” Against a constantly detonating Funkadelic-type backing track, he denies his first family as far as he can and devotes all his energies to the nowness of his current family, or so he imagines; in fact the stress is so overpowering that his daughter commits suicide. He barely seems to notice. “Here’s the future of your perfect fucking child.” The synth bass finally mutates into an ECG heartbeat which inevitably stops.

And indeed here is where I Phantom suddenly decides to turn into a different, and frankly not as good, album. “Friends and Neighbors” is the aforementioned Magnolia-style scenario of seemingly disparate characters who are all finally connected. The improbably named “Officer Grief” comes to the family house following the daughter’s suicide, snaps under pressure and rather fancifully ends up killing “Kate’s mom and dad” – the latter, of course, the original progenitor about whom the album has thus far been. When he is erased from the record, again you hardly notice. The apparent irrelevance of individuals under a questionably defined catchment area of “social ills”; this is where the album seems to lose focus and grandly ascends to a Carlyle-type overview of the societal fallacies of humanity. When in the next track “Iron Helix” we are solemnly informed that “Iron Helix is a synopsis of colonization in which Insight plays the role of a tribesman, or anyone who may not be privy to the modern world (though how can anyone not be in our age? Are we meant to believe that Bin Laden in his labyrinth of caves somewhere in Pakistan is not “privy to the modern world”?)” one has to clear one’s throat rather sternly. And indeed if someone is “not privy to the modern world,” how can they presume to judge it? Identifying a disease presupposes a detailed knowledge of the circumstances and conditions in which a disease can prosper.

By the next track “Earthcrusher” (and Funcrusher Plus this ain’t) the nuclear holocaust has apparently already happened. This is clearly intended to be climactic but is actually about as frightening as Pte Frazer whimpering “we’re all doooooomed” in Dad’s Army. Insight is back on board for this, and it just plods too much to be in any way effective. In its implacable silence, Coil’s “The First Five Minutes After Death” is far more frightening, as indeed is Cassetteboy’s postscript to “Fly Me To New York” (long silence, “everything’s OK,” another long pause, “there’s no need to wor-RY!”). The epilogue “Post Modern” works better (though not as an epilogue) by the extra dread which El-P effortlessly threads through the track. One finally wishes that he had been given the whole album to produce.

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